Homeschooling as an act of conscientious objection.

Author:Morrison, Kristan

Wherever we go, at first we are looked upon as some special, suspicious kind of beings but in due time when people know us we are generally respected and in some cases admired. We are certainly bearing testimony to our beliefs and we hope seed will fall upon good ground and bring forth fruit in other lives ...

The statement above was made by a deviant, someone who acted in a divergent way from normative behavior. But what, exactly, was the deviancy? Was it deviancy of lifestyle of some sort? Of eating habits? Of boycotting shopping at Wal-Mart? Of how one raised her children? Of abstention from military service? Of refusal to be vaccinated? In truth, the deviancy spoken about in the above was conscientious objection to World War I (W. H. Eaton as quoted in Schinkel, 2007, p. 538), but it could easily have been about any of those other forms of breaking from the norms as well. Deviancy comes in many packages, of which conscientious objection is one.

Typically, the term conscientious objection is used to describe an individual's objection to being conscripted into the military (Cohen, 1968; Harries-Jenkins, 1993; Schinkel, 2007), but the term has also been used in different ways. For example, one of the first documented uses in the United States was in regards to people who refused compulsory vaccinations (Moskos & Chambers, 1993; Schinkel, 2007). Other uses present in scholarly literature are in reference to parents sending their children to private Christian schools (conscientiously objecting to the secular humanism they perceive in public schools) (Rice, 1978); consumers boycotting shopping at Wal-Mart, which they perceive to be engaging in harmful and illegitimate business practices (Cronin, Reysen, & Branscombe, 2012); Sir Thomas More's conscientious/religion-based opposition to approving King Henry VIII as the head of the church in England (Schinkel, 2007); and pharmacists or doctors refusing to provide certain services and products (e.g., birth control, abortions) to patients because doing so violated the health-care practitioner's ethical/religious convictions (Alegre, 2009).

The term "conscientious objection" in and of itself provides a rationale and motivation for the act of deviancy--that one is compelled to be true to his/her ethical beliefs (one's conscience) even if those beliefs run counter to society's laws and/or normative understandings and practices. Although some definitions of conscientious objection specify or imply that conscientious objection must entail a refusal to comply with legal obligations (thus setting the action in the legal/public sphere), other definitions do not (e.g., the Wal-Mart and Christian school examples). Schinkel (2007), for example, argues that while there is a distinction between conscientious objection as "a private phenomenon and conscientious objection as a political-juridical phenomenon," this difference is immaterial as it is the combination of motivations, actions, and subsequent consequences that define something as conscientious objection or someone as a conscientious objector. Thus, authors such as Rice, Alegre, and Cronin, Reysen, and Branscombe (cited above) are in line with Schinkel in their usages of the term "conscientious objection" for their studies.

One begins to wonder, then, if there are any other deviant behaviors that can also be identified as conscientious objection. Olson (2009) posits that other, non-normative educational choices made by parents for their children (e.g., homeschooling) can be considered conscientious objection (pp. 151-152). This connection, in fact, is built into the statutes related to compulsory attendance (and thus by extension to homeschooling) in the state of Virginia. According to Virginia Code [section]22.1-254,

A school board shall excuse from attendance at school ... Any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. Is the decision to homeschool, in all cases, truly a manifestation of a conscientious (moral/ethical) objection? The focus of this article is to stake out the qualified position that yes, in almost all cases, homeschooling is a conscientious objection. Notwithstanding the discussion of the multitude of conscientious objector definitions above, when fleshing out the argument that homeschooling is an act of conscientious objection to conventional public education, the definition of conscientious objectors as purely connected to military conscription will be used. As this definition is the one most typically used in common parlance, one can thus reason that if parallels can be drawn between this definition and another behavior, then that second behavior can also be categorized as conscientious objection. This article will develop the thesis by explicating first the numerous parallels, and then detailing the few (albeit significant) points of departure between military conscientious objection and homeschooling. The article will end with a delineation of the possible ramifications of this comparison as well as jumping-off points for future research related to this issue.

The Parallels

Similar Motivations

Those who engage in conscientious objection to military service and conscientious objection to sending their children to public schools have a broad range of motivations for doing so, and this broad range runs along parallel tracks for each. There is a religious/secular track as well as a personal exemption/social change track.

Religious/secular motivations among conscientious objectors to military service. Studies of conscientious objectors to military service break down participants into two main categories--those motivated by religious reasons and those motivated by secular reasons (Harries-Jenkins, 1993; Moskos & Chambers, 1993).

Many of the first officially recognized conscientious objectors to military conscription came from the early "peace churches" (Quaker, Mennonite, Brethren). In these churches' doctrines, there were specific injunctions against members taking part in military actions. Much of the history of conscientious objection to military service in the United States, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, shows that it was only such "peace church" members who, legally, could be officially approved as conscientious objectors (Macgill, 1968; Moskos & Chambers, 1993). During World War I, this was expanded somewhat to include members of other officially recognized religious denominations (Chambers, 1993).

In the 20th century, as pressures from non-overtly-religious conscientious objectors rose, the United States Supreme Court opened the gates a bit to officially identify more secular individuals as conscientious objectors. For example, in the case of United States v. Seeger (1965), "the Court held that a recognized CO no longer had to show belief in a god or supreme being, but instead only had to demonstrate 'sincere or meaningful belief' that occupied a place 'parallel to that filled by God'" (Chambers, 1993, p. 42). Five years later, in Welsh v. United States, "the Court went even further and declared that even strongly held atheistic beliefs against war would meet the test of CO status as long as they were 'ethical and moral beliefs'" (Chambers, 1993, p. 42). These secular conscientious objectors were not following a particular religious doctrine in their opposition to their involvement in military; rather, they were following the dictates of their personal consciences.

Religious/secular motivations among homeschoolers. Just as has been done in the case of conscientious objectors to military service, studies of homeschoolers have broken down these families into two primary groups--religious and secular. First are the ideologues or "believers"--parents opposed to the content of public school curriculum and who wish to have more religious (typically Christian) content in schools (Murphy, 2012; Stevens, 2001; Van Galen & Pitman, 1991). Many of these ideologues/believers feel that parents are commanded by God (or some higher power) to keep their children at home and teach them the centrality of the families' religious values and beliefs (Murphy, 2012).

Then there are the pedagogues or "inclusives" (Stevens, 2001; Van Galen & Pitman, 1991)--parents who believe the structure of public education is pedagogically unsound and who wish to "nurture children's innate goodness and intelligence" through pedagogically progressive practices (including child-centeredness, interdisciplinary examination of phenomenon, minimal hierarchy and overt structure) and develop in them "a strong sense of self and the confidence that they can accomplish whatever they want in this world" (Kapitulik, 2011, p. 78-79). The "inclusives" would also include those parents who believe that their children are not being well-served by the existing curriculum and social structures of the school (e.g. parents of children with academic gifts or with learning disabilities, parents of children of color, etc.) (Collom, 2005; Green & Hoover-Dempsey, 2007; Jolly, Matthews, & Nester, 2012; Mazama & Lundy, 2012).

These groupings are not theoretically "pure" or mutually exclusive. Some believers/ideologues share (to a lesser degree) the pedagogues'/inclusives' concerns about public school pedagogical practices. And some pedagogues/inclusives share the believers'/ideologues' concerns about the values and norms emphasized in public schools (e.g., competition, etc.). Much of the research on motivations to homeschool seems to indicate that both believer and inclusive parents are making the decision to homeschool because doing so, in part, follows the dictates of their consciences. While other ends might also be served, the instigating factor almost always seems to be connected to a feeling of being drawn to the decision through the actor's sense of what is good and right.

The fact that homeschooling shares with conscientious objection...

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